A frontal assault on the art of the times - once again

Strange and fascinating things are going on in art these days.

Huge painterly representations of mythological creatures and figures; strange and exotic beasts; stark and intensely active human nudes; landscapes of fire and brimstone; mysterious signs and revelations are now very much in evidence.

It's almost as though we had opened a huge Pandora's box, and were now delighting and reveling in the exotica pouring forth.

What makes it all so much more dramatic - and heretical to the purists among us - is that all this is being presented in the wildest, starkest, boldest, and most passionately painted and colored canvases imaginable. It is, without doubt, a frontal assault upon the established artistic sensibilities of the past 20 years.

Now that in itself makes it all very predictable and puts it squarely into the tradition of 20th-century art. If there is one thing to be learned from a study of modernism, it is that almost every major art movement of this century started off by first going to the opposite extreme of the style or movement preceding it.

So for all the fuss and shouting going on, all that's really happening is that the artistic pendulum, which has already swung back and forth across our cultural landscape several times during this century, has once again swung away as far as possible from where it was before.

In short, the art we see sprouting so oddly and in such mad profusion these days includes very little that is new - and only a few things that are different.

An excellent opportunity to examine some of the lushest and most exotic of these latest artistic flora and fauna is currently being presented by the Guggenheim Museum here. ''Italian Art Now: An American Perspective,'' consists of the work of seven contemporary Italian artists who represent this ''new'' direction to one degree or another.

The artists were selected by Diane Waldman, deputy director of the museum, during numerous visits to galleries and studios throughout Italy last year. They are Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Nino Longobardi, Luigi Ontani, Giuseppe Penone, Vettor Pisani, and Gilberto Zorio. Their works make up an interesting, if somewhat disconcertingly blatant, show. Many of the canvases are huge and blunt to the point of vulgarity - which was intentional - while the three-dimensional pieces generally come across as intriguing, but totally obscure.

But that's only the first impression. If we go beyond it and accept the rawness and blatancy as part of the aesthetic of these works (and didn't we have to do that originally with the early Chagall, Rouault, Matisse, Braque, Pollock, etc.?), we will find that something significant and moving is being touched upon - at least by two or three of these artists.

Although it is still in a very raw state, Nino Longobardi's imagery has a hauntingly disturbing quality that kept drawing me back to his works on canvas and on paper over and over again - and that still fascinates me as I turn the pages of the section devoted to him in the exhibition catalog. His huge tempera and charcoal ''drawing'' of a man and woman running (all his pieces are untitled) is quite extraordinary - not the least for the skill, subtlety, and logic with which he turned the man's feet into skulls.

I suspect, given his youth - he is still in his 20s - and the intensity and promise of his works in this show, that Longobardi may well become one of the major international figures of the 1980s and beyond.

Sandro Chia, on the other hand, is already well on the way to a solid international reputation. His huge and often violently colored canvases certainly come close to dominating this exhibition - by sheer size if nothing else. And yet they also have the knack of drawing the viewer back for more - and of becoming more interesting with each return.

Of the other artists, only Gilberto Zorio seemed to rise above the obvious, the dismal, or the banal. His three-dimensional pieces were at least handsome and provocative. ''Star (To Purify Words),'' while certainly not a major piece, at least asks some interesting questions.

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